Jan 6, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterThe sun had not yet peaked over the mountains or broken through the clouds, but a bright orange tractor was already chugging over the snow in the darkness on a cold December morning.
The machine pulled a bright blue contraption called a "drag." The device is about 20 feet long and eight feet wide. Hanging from it are 10 blades like miniature snow plows that spread snow evenly.
At the back is a the "pan," a wide metal sheet curving down and backward. It packs the snow and smooths it.
The whole thing strongly resembles a narrow farm plow.
With its drag behind it, the tractor is an impressive machine. It has four triangular tracks, each six feet long, and a 185-horsepower Cummins engine.
Entering the passenger cabin requires climbing up a track to a step and swinging up still farther through the door.
Despite its size, high up in the Wind River range the mountains, valleys and thick forests surrounding the vehicle dwarf it and its lone occupant, Brad Johnson.
The similarity to agricultural is not only aesthetic but extends to the work itself: "It's kind of like farming snow," Johnson said.
Five times weekly
Johnson drives the tractor five days a week to groom the Continental Divide Snowmobile Trail. He starts every day from his home near Union Pass.
Fridays and Sundays, he drives 21 miles north to the Tie Hack area and 21 miles back, smoothing and firming the snow along the way. He grooms the trail going south to Strawberry Creek and back, a 32-mile round trip, on Thursdays and Saturdays. Wednesdays, makes a 45-mile round trip to Fish Lake to the west.
Johnson has to limit his speed to 6-8 mph in order to groom effectively. Starting at 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. in the morning, he finishes his routes in the early afternoon.
Brad and his father, Duane Johnson, own two more tractors and hire operators to drive them to groom other parts of the Continental Divide Snowmobile trail.
One tractor runs out of the Upper Green Valley and meets up with Johnson's section at Strawberry Creek. The other is based at MacKenzie's Highland Ranch and connects at Fish Lake with Johnson's area.
December to March
All three tractors started grooming the trails on Dec. 10 and keep working until March 2.
They begin their season by setting the trail up for grooming, using a blade on the front to fill in dips and cut a level path along sloped hillsides.
Then, they spend several weeks spreading snow evenly along the trail and packing it down.
After Christmas, they all switch to night grooming.
Duane Johnson said the night runs start a half hour before dark and finish in the middle of the night. The cold early morning hours freeze the groomed trail hard, allowing it to better withstand the increased use after New Year's.
Though snow may blow and temperatures often dip below zero outside, Johnson has several comforting amenities inside his tractor. Chief among them is the heater, which keeps the two-seat cabin warm enough that he can get by wearing a flannel shirt and jeans as he rides along.
Johnson also brings lunch, a thermos of coffee and a few cigars with him while a satellite radio keeps him company.
Despite the power of the engine and comfort of the cabin, accidents and breakdowns sometimes send Johnson or the other drivers out into the cold.
Stakes resembling highway reflectors mark the trail's route. Sometimes, snowmobilers move the stakes to mark rocks, Johnson said, leading him right into them and potentially damaging the drag.
The stakes also help drivers stay on the path. When blowing snow causes low visibility, Johnson said it's all he can do to drive stake to stake.
Snow around the trail is packed down, and the tractor will sink into it if it gets off the trail. That is exactly what happened to the driver of one tractor.
A couple years ago, Johnson said, a snowmobiler in the Upper Green Valley hit a stake and apparently became enraged, because he or she pulled it out of the snow and threw it off the trail. The stake happened to land upright, looking like it was placed normally.
When he came upon it, the tractor driver working in that area, Johnson said, saw the stake.
"He thought 'that don't look right, but that's my stake,'" Johnson said. "He went whoosh, right off."
The tractor sank deep into the loose snow just off the trail.
"That guy was pissed," Johnson said chuckling. "He was four hours digging that out."
Despite such inconveniences, Johnson said he likes his job. He lives so close to the trail that he drives his tractor home. When he starts again the next day, he gets back in the machine and sets off.
Johnson has been doing this work for 14 years, and said he knows his routes well now -- and values his independence.
"I just go do it," he said. "I don't have to mess with anybody."
Besides that, there is the view from his 'office' which anyone would envy.
Johnson's routes take him through dozens of miles of back country through valleys, along rivers and under mountains. Mule deer leap off the trail when he comes by, and he finds wolf tracks along his way.
"There are some spots on the trail system that are beautiful," Johnson said.
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